Managing Triggers

Written by: Maia McCoy, Victim Services Coordinator
The word “trigger” has become so ubiquitous in our vernacular that it has lost meaning. “Trigger” is used when one’s buttons are pushed, when one is vexed, frustrated, or fed up. “I was so triggered.” However, many annoyances do not rise to the level of trauma, and by using this word so often and carelessly, we diminish the crime survivor’s experience.
For a crime survivor a trigger is a stimulus that induces a flashback or pulls one back into the past to the traumatic event(s). The triggering can be very abrupt, and the flashback can feel very visceral, or it may bring on a state of confusion or any number of complex emotions, which are more diffuse or abstract but are connected to the trauma. Triggers can feel unwanted, disturbing, and enervating, as we rebuild.

  1. The first step in managing triggers is identifying what they are for you individually, which is a process. After a crime occurs, our emotional landscape can feel uncharted. Some triggers may be very obvious. We may know that we don’t want to see people who appear like the assailant. Other triggers may be subtler. In addition to external cues some of our own emotional states may trigger us. It is important to be curious about our emotions when they feel heightened or non-existent. Often, we dissociate to self-protect, so feeling numb or unreal, as if in a dream, may be a very clear indication of a trigger.
  2. Acknowledge the trigger. Notice the physiological signs (racing heart, rapid breathing, etc.) and/or changed internal state (feeling sad, vulnerable, angry, etc.). If you are able, remind yourself that the traumatic event is not actually happening.
  3. Practice box breathing. Breathe in four counts, hold four counts, breathe out four counts, hold four counts. Breath is important in the regulation of the body’s nervous system, which controls arousal. If you are prone to panic attacks, box breathing may be particularly helpful. When we hyperventilate we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths in, but exhaling activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as the body’s brakes and can dampen hyperarousal.
  4. Try some grounding techniques:
  • Guided meditation. With all the new-fangled apps, you can now steal a few minutes to tune in to yourself in your car or cubicle.
  • A spot of tea. Warm, non-caffeinated beverages can be soothing and allow us to become aware of our senses – taste, smell, touch, bringing us back into the present.
  • Connect with nature – take a short walk, hike, lay out in the sun. Going outside is the number one way to decrease levels of cortisol in your system, and it’s also a good way to calm yourself and to spiritually and physically ground.
  • Pet a fluffy cat, a dog, a bunny, or even ferret.
  • Listen to music – classical, heavy metal, whatever works for you. Heavy metal may not be calming but it might snap you out of the past.
  • Call a friend or advocate who gets it. “Hey girl, my PTSD is raging, and I need to talk.”
  1. Explore what works for you, and find varied strategies. It’s good to have a grab bag of management strategies, because the constraints of working in an office may not allow for walking in the grass barefoot – a great plan, by the way, for home or school.
  2. Talk to a partner or friend about ways they can help. Some people find it is helpful if someone asks simple questions when they are having a flashback to bring them back into the room. “What did we have dinner tonight? Can you describe it. How did that taste?” “Can you tell me what we did this afternoon?”
  3. Avoiding some triggers is healthy. Managing your own media consumption – not reading articles about murder, assault, and so forth, does not mean you are less informed, or less than, it means that today you saved yourself the energy to read about some of the other things happening in the world. Of course, it is easier to consciously consume media by reading instead of watching TV.
  4. Avoiding all triggers is not healthy. In order to live a full life, we are going to be confronted by experiences and events that trigger us. Management strategies can help us to continue growing as people.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Maybe you know that in the future you want to volunteer for a victim services organization but right now the volunteer orientation would induce panic. Be gentle with yourself. While you can decide if forgiving the perpetrator is important to your healing process, forgiving yourself for the time it takes to heal could be the first step in helping you to reach your goals.
  6. Learn more. If you want more information and practical strategies for coping with traumatic stress check out The PTSD Workbook by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.